For several, that means heading to the European mainland. Brits can be found in France, Denmark, DEL2, Italy and the Alps Hockey League. Goalie Ben Bowns went to Graz 99ers, only to suffer injury, while Coyotes prospect Liam Kirk is in Sweden’s HockeyEttan. However, only 16 of the players named to the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship roster are currently signed for the 2020/21 season.
Meanwhile, an initiative from the National Ice Hockey League, the second tier of hockey in England, could bring competitive action back to the country’s rinks. This weekend sees the start of the so-called ‘Streaming Series’, a three-team round robin played behind closed doors. The clubs involved, Milton Keynes Lightning, Sheffield Steeldogs and Swindon Wildcats, hope that they can cover the cost by selling live streams of the action – and prove a business model that could allow the NIHL to prepare to start a season for all 10 of its top division clubs.
Glad to be backFor many players, the prospect of getting back onto the ice is a relief. All three teams in the Streaming Series have bolstered their rosters with players from the Elite League. GB international Matthew Myers is one of them, swapping the Cardiff Devils for the Swindon Wildcats.
“I’m just filling in my forms now and feels great to be getting back out on the ice again,” the 36-year-old forward said. “It’s been six or seven months now so I’m really looking forward to getting out there again.”
And the three-time British champion isn’t worried about stepping down a level to keep himself in the game. “I’m sure everyone in the Elite League would be like to be going to the DEL or Switzerland, but we all know there’s a massive surplus of hockey players at the moment. The North American leagues haven’t started yet, so you have all those players looking for jobs on top of the usual players trying to find teams across Europe.”
Britain’s head coach Pete Russell is concerned about the impact the current situation might have on his players – from a personal point of view more than a hockey one.
“That’s a tough thing and these guys aren’t getting paid. They have families and because of the pandemic and lockdowns, they’re not even allowed sport. There’s no support and that’s the worst part.
“The World Championships are a by-product of all of that and my thinking is if the guys can get playing somewhere, then that’s great. We’ll worry about the tournament when it comes, but my thoughts are with all the guys right now.
“I know the guys will keep going. When the game’s not there, players just want to play and coaches just want to coach. If an offer is there, they will take it because they just want to play.”
“That’s part of my reason for going to Swindon now. I’m still looking at opportunities in Europe but if this league can go ahead in Britain, I’m ready to stay with the Wildcats and play here to try to earn a place on Team GB. That would be quite a step up, from the NIHL to the World Championship!”
Vote of confidenceMyers isn’t alone. He’s joined in Swindon by fellow Devil Josh Batch, recalled to Pete Russell’s roster for Feburary’s Olympic qualifiers in Nottingham. Elsewhere, Ben O’Connor has signed up with Sheffield Steeldogs where he’s joined by Ben Lake, another member of the team in Slovakia. In Milton Keynes, Ross Venus – another part of Britain’s Olympic Qualification roster in February – has joined from Coventry Blaze, as has defenceman David Clements, while Lewis Hook returns to the club from Belfast.
Steeldogs owner Ali Cree reckons that seeing well-known players moving clubs to get involved is something of a vote of confidence in the project – and a reward for efforts that began almost as soon as last season came to an end.
“Early in the first lockdown we were in touch with a lot of players,” Cree said. “We all knew the Elite League might not happen so we started talking to a few guys local to us and let them know that there might be something here. We understood that they might have other offers and chances to play at a higher level, especially Ben [O’Connor] and the national team players. But we had a gentlemen’s agreement to talk again if the Steeldogs were able to play, and he’s come in and been fantastic with everything.”
And Cree believes that clubs in the National League have something to offer in the current situation. “Nobody from the GB program has been asking us to do this, but I think it is important that British players get a chance to play this season,” he said. “Even just skating as part of our bubble while we prepare for these games makes a difference.
“For a lot of Elite League players there’s a bit of frustration and I think there are a few more guys starting to talk with National League teams about this Streaming Series or hopefully the December Cup if we can move to play that.”
Some have questioned why the National League is able to go ahead, even though the Elite League is unable to. But Cree, whose Steeldogs play at a venue almost next door to the Sheffield Steelers, feels the money involved at the higher level makes it difficult for the Elite League to play. “It’s mostly just down to different budgets, especially when the Elite League runs with 14 imports,” he said.
“Maybe there was a possible model that could have been interesting if the Elite League tried to run with maybe four or five imports and give opportunities to players from our league. But a lot of people like the Elite League because it has all those imports, and even if you reduce player costs I can well understand that the Sheffield Arena [home of the Steelers] has many more costs related to it.”
Unfamiliar territoryPlaying hockey behind closed doors is a leap into the unknown for British hockey. For all it’s a minority sport in the UK, statistics suggest that in the winter months it is second only to football and rugby in terms of attendance. The business model, though, is very much ‘bums on seats’ – TV coverage is sparse and teams cannot look to sponsors or broadcasters to compensate for a loss of ticket money on game day.
But Milton Keynes Lightning CEO Claire Eason-Bassett is encouraged by the reaction to the series. “Generally the response is very, very positive,” she said. “Understandably people have questions – and that includes the players – so all those conversations are on-going. People have their own opinions about whether this is the right thing to do, but we are following every bit of guidance from our governing body and the British government. We are assured that the measures we are putting in place are the best we can possibly have for our sports and our players, and that means we can bring a bit of hockey back. I think everybody, the world over, has desperately missed live hockey.”
However, eagerness to play again should not be taken for anxiety that clubs might fold if COVID restrictions continue.
“We’re all fans too and we’re all missing our hockey,” Eason-Bassett said. “I don’t think any club is at crisis point but of course we all want to get hockey back – it’s the core of our business and in the first lockdown it just evaporated overnight for us and everybody else. In the event sector, and in sport to some extent, people responded by creating virtual environments. We started off by showing replays of old footage. It’s a bit more complex to do with live hockey, but this is another step in the process of getting back to playing.
“I suppose there’s a concern that people start getting used to life without hockey. We don’t want fans to drift away, to feel that they are not engaged and not wanted – nothing could be further from the truth. Part of the reason we are doing this is to keep us in the habit of hockey and play our game to the best of our ability within the parameters we have. We just want to start building our business back.”
A united frontIt’s taken a long time, with plenty of bumps on the way – not least at the start of November when the government announced a second lockdown in England throwing the whole process into doubt.
“For about five days we were just looking at each other thinking ‘what?’,” Eason-Bassett added. “These pilot games are more stress and worry than I’ve ever experienced before. This is complex. We’re talking weeks and months of hard graft to make sure that it’s viable, safe and manageable. I think it’s the kind of challenge we can only get through by working together, sharing that worry and concern and playing a team game. Any of the usual politics and niggles have all been put to one side and there’s very much a collective will. There’s a real sense of ‘let’s try it!’.”
Cree is also encouraged by the cooperation that has made the series possible. “The three clubs are working together well,” he said. “When we get all our teams back and we have more people around the table, I hope we’ll be able to keep singing from the same hymn sheet because the meetings to set up the Streaming Series have been really enjoyable and positive.”
The Streaming Series begins on Saturday, 14 November when Swindon hosts Milton Keynes. The following day, Sheffield takes on Swindon, and the action continues over the next two weekends. Full game schedule and ticket information is available at www.nihl-national.co.uk/tickets.